As The Panics prepare to play at St Jerome's Laneway Festival, Heidi Pett spoke to frontman Jae Laffer about Republicanism, Peter Garrett and, of course, their latest album:
Your latest album - and a lot of your output - has been described as cinematic and particularly Australian. What do you think it is about your music that creates this perception?
I don’t know! *laughs*. I can understand the cinematic thing, on a surface level we have a knack for making sparse and grandiose sweeping... well... pop songs. I kind of understand it and sometimes I think we could do a pretty good job of making a film soundtrack sometime.
As for sounding Australian, it’s kind of flattering. I guess it’s the occasional bit of language or the description of an environment. I don’t set out to write songs that are over-the-top Australian, I think it’s to do with that sparse guitar sound that a lot of Aussie bands can get and that the boys in my band do very well, and mixing that with a certain kind of lyrical delivery. I see where that comes from and it's something that I like in a lot of my favourite bands, so that’s cool.
Did you find there was a certain pressure after the success of 2007’s Cruel Guards? Did it alter the way that you wrote?
There’s always been far greater pressure from within myself and within the band. [The success of Cruel Guards] made the whole prospect of writing more songs quite exciting, because you get a taste for what it's like when you notice you’re being played in the shops or on the television and you get this great feeling that something you’ve been working on has somehow slipped into popular culture, you get to change the atmosphere around the place just in a small way. You start to think of the possibilities of how that must feel if it’s ten times the size - being played in taxi cabs in America. That kind of crazy idea is really exciting.
I’m in it for the long haul, I want to be making records for many years to come. I have great faith and confidence in what we’ll be able to achieve in the future, I don’t really feel the pressure at this point. I just keep striving to make that great record in my head.
This album was written in Salford, a very different environment to what you would have been used to. Do you think that in some way coloured the sound of the album?
I can listen to the songs and hear the main things that colour it and a certain feeling overall. I find it quite claustrophobic in a way. It’s very internal. It’s not always the most uplifting atmosphere that we create! The boys certainly counteract more moody lyrics with some really great and sparse and driving music and it creates this blend. The great thing about trying your luck with different places and different producers is that it all has a great effect on how the record finishes up. If we were recording at Woodstock out in the forest it would sound completely different, likewise if we’d produced it ourselves it would sound different again.
The first single, Majesty, has a certain pro-republican vibe. How have people responded to the lyrics in that one?
I’ve made a conscious effort not to make it too over-the-top. I don’t think I’m ready for a big political rant of any kind but it’s exciting to have lyrics that are not just about love for a change. I’ve done loads of interviews where suddenly people are asking me about my thoughts on the Queen, or religion or something and it makes life far more interesting!
It's nice to get to an age now where I feel comfortable talking about things in society that affect me and matter to me - to put it on the table. I’m not overly passionate about any particular stance, I just think it’s healthy for people to talk about such things.
It must be nice for people to see you as more than just a one-dimensional character?
Yeah well otherwise you’re just the slightly moody, inward-thinking kinda guy who writes songs about breakups and stuff. Sometimes I think my music doesn’t represent me very accurately. It’s funny that I seem to have so many songs that are so retrospective, when I’m naturally really positive and really opinionated.
No plans to be the next Peter Garrett though?
I’ve got a great respect for Peter Garrett. When it comes to that highly opinionated and highly political music, it's so hard to get right and I look up to them [Midnight Oil] very much. You don’t choose to go on that path though, you have to be called to it. Though I’d like to get to the stage that if I need to have a conversation on political matters on the television or something like that, I could hold my own. You need people on all sides of the spectrum speaking about what they think is right and what our generation wants to stand for - what we’re prepared to tolerate and not tolerate from politicians. We’re the generation that’s gotta look after the place, it’s worth talking about all things that we want to stand for.
Another thing you seem to be quite passionate about: you’ve mentioned previously that you like to help out other Perth bands, having recently toured with Split Seconds... Do you feel a certain responsibility to the next generation of Australian musicians?
Not so much responsibility, it’s just one of those things where it feels good to help people out. It’s a real tough slog being in a group, especially form Perth. You’ve gotta spend a lot to get over to the Eastern states and really try to get noticed by the rest of the country. We had a lot of troubles on our way so it's nice to even just be the band that helps out and lets people use your gear.
I spoke to the guys from Georgia Fair a while ago. They said they had a great time on the Rain On The Humming Wire tour, that The Panics taught them a lot and that you were very hands-on with your music. Can you tell me more about that?
*laughs* That’s a nice way of saying we’re absolutely in poverty and have to do everything ourselves. We lift every box and every amp and we set the whole place up. We like to be hands-on and feel part of everything that’s going on, and I think we just like to be busy, to tell you the truth! We’re very proactive with the whole show. We’re not just going to turn up at showtime, we like treating the whole thing as one big project. It’s good to be in a band that wants to be that hands-on.
I don’t have many rules to go by but all I know is we’ve been together... I don’t even know how many years. Our first EP came out ten years ago and whatever we’re doing we’ve generally done it right. We may not be mega-successful but we get to do things kind of on our own terms, we’ve stayed together and people seem to respect it. I’m very proud of the boys and myself for being persistent and keeping not just the dream but the passion at that high level. We don’t wanna let it get casual. We want to make another record very soon. We’ve managed to stick it out and learn a lot along the way, and we’ve set ourselves up to be in a position where... you know... I’d love us to be like R.E.M, making 20 albums, and maybe your 10th is your best. I love that idea.
The Panics play at this year's St Jerome's Laneway Festival.
Interview by Heidi Pett. You can read her own blog here.